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Higher Learning

For students in SIFE, learning is anything but business as usual.

Think of an imaginary city in which grade-schoolers assume the roles of, say, business owners--complete with the challenges of meeting payroll and overseeing employees. Next, conjure up an image of a cross-country trek that racks up mileage in direct proportion to the national debt. What do these two ambitious projects have in common? Both were conceived and executed by Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE) teams.

A nonprofit organization started in 1975, SIFE seeks to instill in college students a greater appreciation for--and understanding of--the free-enterprise system. "What we're about is training, motivating and energizing college students to go give other people a real understanding of how free enterprise works," explains SIFE president Alvin Rohrs. Sort of a trickle-down approach to business education, if you will.

Fittingly, the more than 500 campus-based SIFE teams are themselves entrepreneurial in nature. "It is very autonomous," says Rohrs. "[Individual teams] decide how they want to structure their programs and decide which target audiences they want to work with." These target audiences range from senior citizen groups to at-risk youth.

So, yes, you're probably thinking--and you'd be correct--that SIFE doesn't strive only to breed successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople. Instead, says Rohrs, there exists an underlying concept of doing well by doing good. "They want to succeed," Rohrs says of SIFE members, "but they don't intend to do it unethically. They don't intend to do it like a bulldozer, knocking people out of their way."

To help SIFE members in their pursuit of excellence, the organization provides opportunities to meet and listen to small-business owners and top-level executives from a variety of corporations. (Entrepreneur vice president and editorial director Rieva Lesonsky is on the SIFE board of directors.) "College students can actually spend time at our competitions and our other activities with CEOs and high-level executives whom you usually just get to read about or see on television," raves Rohrs.

And the reactions? "Businesspeople aren't used to getting standing ovations--but our kids get on their feet and make them glad they're there," says Rohrs. "In fact, it's really hard for our speakers to get out the door because our kids just swamp them."

Do these ultra-enthusiastic kids go on to entrepreneurship? Many do, yes. Surmises Rohrs, "When and if they're ready to become a business owner and go out on their own, a lot of what they learn in SIFE will get them well down the road."

If you're interested in either joining or volunteering for SIFE, contact its national headquarters at 1959 E. Kerr, Springfield, MO 65803; (800) 677-SIFE.

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This article was originally published in the March 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Higher Learning.

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